Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Classics Spin #24: Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

Another Classics Spin success! I always look forward to the Spins, they motivate me to read the books that I keep putting off. I bought this in June of 2017, on a trip to London in the hottest week of the year. . I had a bit of nostalgia when I found the receipt still stuck in the back of the book, from a used bookseller on Charing Cross Road. (I paid £5 for it, one of three green Virago Modern Classics purchased that day). 

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy had all the signs of an ideal read for me. Published in 1953, the story begins with correspondence in 1879, between two brothers-in-law. The honorable Frederick Harnish is researching some family history while recuperating from something unspecified, and requests some papers left by an ancestor, Ludovic, who died in 1830. He's specifically looking for letters he might have written, and what emerges are letters and diary entries from Ludovic's lifelong friend Miles Lufton, the owner of a property called Troy Chimneys. So, essentially this is a mid-century book about a Victorian researching a Regency ancestor. 

What follows are the memoirs of Miles Lufton, a former MP from Wiltshire. The actual property called Troy Chimneys is mostly peripheral -- it's really just slices of life in the early 1800s by a man on the fringes of upper-crust society. Son of a clergyman, he really doesn't have any money, but uses his Oxford connections to gain a seat in Parliament, though that's not a big part of the book either. It's more about his everyday life, though there are hints of a family scandal that is revealed at the end of the story.

Not a long book at just under 250 pages, but not what I'd call a quick read. It was slow going at first as the story is first framed by correspondence regarding the history of the late relatives, and also a bit confusing as Lufton begins to explain the history of his family -- I really should have written down a family tree as I was reading. It's also a bit confusing because Lufton sometimes refers to himself as Pronto, which is sort of his alter ego, the sociable persona he adopts to make himself interesting and in demand as a guest with the upper-crust people. It's also a bit confusing that two of the characters are Lufton and Ludo. 

But I really did enjoy it. What I liked most about it was that it was really written in the style of the Regency period -- it probably slowed down the reading, but I really felt like this could have been written by Jane Austen or one of her contemporaries, thought it's definitely from the male point of view. Miles could absolutely have been a minor character in a Jane Austen novel, like Mr. Yates in Mansfield Park or Captain Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice -- probably as a sidekick to a leading man, but a younger son without much money. 

The book does include a Jane Austen reference which delighted me: 

But over novels she was obstinate; she could not like them. . . . she objected strongly to anything sentimental, nor would she listen to my pleas for my favorites: Emma and Mansfield Park, of which she complained that they kept her continually in the parlour, where she was obliged, in any case, to spend her life. A most entertaining parlour, she allowed, but: 

'That lady's greatest admirers will always be men, I believe. For when they have had enough of the parlour, they may walk out, you know, and we cannot.'

Interesting that a woman of the period (albeit fictional) would have thought of it that way! Yet very true. And so ironic since nowadays the majority of Austen's fans are women.  

So, a very successful Spin pick, and I hope there will be another before the end of the year. Only 18 books left on my Classics Club list! I'm tempted to try and finish it in 2020, though there are several doorstoppers which would probably slow me down. Still, it's worth trying. 

Bloggers, did you participate in the latest Classics Spin? Did you enjoy your pick? 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Back to the Classics 2020: Final Wrap-Up Posts

Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge? Congratulations! This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post. This post is only for Challenge Wrap-Up Posts. If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section below. Please read the directions carefully. 

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published before 1970 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post. If I cannot find links to your reviews, I cannot give you credit and thus enter you into the drawing. THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate the following within THIS POST, linked below, or in the comments section below if you do not have your own blog:

1. Which book corresponds to each category;

2. The number of entries you have earned for the prize drawing; 
3. Links to your reviews. 

If you do NOT include links to your original reviews IN THIS POST, I CANNOT ENTER YOU INTO THE DRAWING.


  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!

Please be sure and include some kind of contact for me within your final wrap-up post. This year, I will be contacting the winner privately BEFORE posting their name publicly on this blog. If I cannot contact you, I cannot award your prize. If there is no contact on your blog post, please email me at karenlibrarian13 [at] yahoo [dot] com.

I can also message the winner via Goodreads, so if you are posting reviews via your Goodreads account, I can contact you that way also.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Big Book Summer Wrap-Up

Summer is officially over, and so is the Big Book Summer Challenge hosted by Suzan at Book By Book. I'm very pleased because I finished ten very long books this summer! Eight were from my original list, and two were e-books that I'd been wanting to read. Here's what I read: 

Altogether I finished ten big fat books, seven in print, two on e-book, and one (mostly) audiobook: 

Nonfiction: (3)

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (592 pp)
Roughing It by Mark Twain (592 pp)
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (622 pp)


Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett (769 pp)
The Twisted Sword by Winston Graham (646 pp)
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (944 pp)
Temptation by Janos Szekeley (685 pp)
John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope (656 pp)

The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton (652 pp)

Short Stories: (1)

East and West: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. I (955 pp)

Of course, some of these books were actually not as long as expected, due to margins, font size, illustrations, etc. The nonfiction books also had indices and appendices. 

The longest book was The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, and the shortest was actually The Fruit of the Tree, though it doesn't look it.  Altogether, my total number of pages read for this challenge:  7,113!  (I also read some shorter books this summer to break it up). 

I enjoyed all the books for the most part. I think my least favorite was Roughing It and my favorites were Temptation, The Warmth of Other Suns, and Imperial Palace. I still love big fat books and plant to keep reading them -- there's still almost 30 books left on my original list! I have some other challenges coming up this fall and hope to finish some more by the end of the year -- and some shorter books too. 

Bloggers, how was your summer of reading? Did you finish any great big books, and what's on the horizon for your fall reading plans? And thanks again to Suzan for hosting, I hope we'll do it again next year!

Monday, September 7, 2020

Roughing It by Mark Twain: Tall Tales (and Some Racism) in the American West

Published in 1872, Roughing It is a semi-fictional account of Mark Twain's travels and misadventures in the American west during the 1860s. The story begins with Twain eagerly accompanying his brother Orion to the Nevada Territory, where Orion has been appointed Secretary. After an extensive stagecoach journey, he spends time in Nevada before visiting Salt Lake City, then failing as a miner in California. Twain begins to support himself by taking various writing and newspaper jobs, which eventually take him to Hawaii. 

This book is full of wry humor and amusing descriptions of life in the Wild West, including some tall tales and colorful characters. However, it's sprinkled throughout with a lot of racist comments -- Twain is particularly unpleasant about native Americans and Hawaiians, though he includes pretty much every non-white group in American at the time. I realize this was the prevailing attitude of the times, but honestly, there were some serious yikes moments for me. It was very disconcerting because there would be amusing chapters about ridiculous characters and situations  -- and some not so ridiculous, but downright scary, like the time Twain and his companions set off a massive forest fire. In another instance, Twain and his companions were trapped on a tiny island in the middle of an alkali lake after their boat drifted off. A storm was brewing and they narrowly escaped perishing (if the story is to be believed).

This was a slow book, and I listened to most of it on an audio download from my library. There are several editions available. Mine was read by Robin Field who is an excellent narrator, and I probably would have given up on the book much earlier if I had just been reading the print copy. 

Honestly, the only reason I read this book was because I'd bought a copy years ago and it was on my pile for the Big Book Summer Challenge, and also on my Classics Club list. If it hadn't been available on audio I probably wouldn't have stuck with it. Twain is good at spinning out an entertaining yarn, and if you like a dry and occasionally ridiculous style of humor, it's mildly amusing if you can skip over the racism. I also have a copy of Twain's Letters From Hawaii that I bought in Waikiki about ten years ago. It's much shorter and I may give it a go in a few months just to get it off the shelves and donate it to the Little Free Library on my street.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett: Upstairs and Downstairs in a London Hotel

He knew the exact number of guests staying in the hotel that night; but their secrets, misfortunes, anxieties, hopes, despairs, tragedies, he did not know. And he would have liked to know every one of them, to drench himself in the invisible fluid of mortal things. He was depressed. He wanted sympathy, and to be sympathetic, to merge into humanity. But he was alone. He had no close friend, no lovely mistress -- save the Imperial Palace. The Palace was his life. And what was the Palace, the majestic and brilliant offspring of his creative imagination and of his organising brain? It had been everything. Now, for the moment, it was naught.

Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett has been on my TBR pile for about 10 years, since I found a copy for $1 at the library's used Book Cellar. I was really hoping it would be the book assigned by the latest Classics Club Spin, I thought I'd try and tackle it anyway as part of my Big Book Summer reading challenge.

Set in the late 1920s, it's approximately a year in the life of two hotel employees at the eponymous hotel, a swank London establishment (based on the luxurious Savoy hotel). The manager, Evelyn Orcham, is in his late forties and has devoted his life to the hospitality business, working his way up from the bottom. He's now at the top of his profession, the most respected hotel manager in London. The other main character is Violet Powler, a young manager from the hotel's laundry division, who Orcham promotes to floor housekeeper and begins to fast-track her career to bigger and better things in the hotel. 

Their stories are intertwined with the arrival of the blustering Sir Henry Savott (baronet) and his impulsive daughter Gracie, one of the Bright Young Things of the London set, known for her fast cars and eccentric ways. It's mostly set in the hotel and supporting establishments, and follows their lives amid the day-to-day workings of the hotel, including difficult guests, a merger, a massive holiday celebration, love affairs, jealousy, gossipy employees, and potential scandals. It's a bit like Downton Abbey, only set in a 1920s hotel instead of a country house. (It also reminded me of Norman Collins' Bond Street Story, which I also loved). 

The lobby of the famous Savoy Hotel in London, inspiration for the Imperial Palace.
It is so posh I was afraid to go inside.

And the story is long, nearly 800 pages. It's not a difficult read, but I found myself reading it fairly slowly, spreading it out over several weeks. There are a lot of short chapters, like a Victorian novel, so there were plenty of stopping points; also, I really didn't want it to end. For the most part, I really enjoyed the characters, and I loved being in their world. I had a particular interest in this novel because years ago, I was employed at a large hotel in Chicago, where I worked in the kitchens as a pastry cook for almost two years. Of course I didn't see nearly all the minutiae of housekeeping and guests, but I learned a lot about how much work is involved in running a large operation, keeping all the departments coordinated and the logistics of large events. In the kitchens alone we had to deal with catering, ordering, stocking, room service, stewarding, and so on. A hotel is like a giant machine and all the parts fit together, and I am always fascinated by how much work goes into coordinating everything. Based on my own experience, Bennett must have had first-hand knowledge of how a hotel was run because that aspect of the book seemed really authentic. (Bennett also wrote about hotels in the much shorter novella The Grand Babylon Hotel, and briefly in The Old Wives' Tale). 

That being said, this novel was published in 1930 and there are some racist and sexist bits that made me roll my eyes. The hotel manager Orcham doesn't seem to think much of women's intelligence unless they are useful to him, and both the main characters are pretty xenophobic -- there are actual Italian and French employees, the horror! And I was pretty sure I knew how the book would end up, but there was one outcome that I did not like one bit, it was so sexist. 

Overall, though, I really did enjoy this book and it will probably be one of my favorites for the year.